April 21st, 2007 14:41 EST
Baby, Don't Say Don't
Zelma removed her glasses and positioned them strategically on the dashboard of Jeff’s mother’s ’54 Chevy Bel Air. She took the Dentyne out of her mouth, rolled it back up in its wrapper, and laid it in the ashtray. Jeff slipped the key into the ignition, found the auxiliary slot, and rotated the tuning knob to WFLI and the top-forty countdown. They rolled the windows down on each side of the car. The preparations had become a ritual for their Wednesday night liaisons.
The way Zelma figured it, getting rid of the glasses worked for both of them. First, she knew that she looked better with her glasses off. She was fourteen, a year older than Jeff, with a forgettable face, limp, luster-proof brown hair, and a weak chin. In her favor, she had breasts. Not just run-of-the-mill, fourteen-year-old, emerging breasts-to-be, but real-live, here and now, out-there breasts. Second, without her glasses, she was practically blind. In her blurred vision, the red-haired, freckled-faced Jeff looked much more like someone she might fantasize about kissing.
They were outside in the gravel parking lot of the Second Cumberland “Whosoever Will May Come” Presbyterian Church. They had endured the Wednesday-night prayer meeting and when choir practice began had gratefully retreated to the darkened confines of the Bel Air for their own private practice.
“Turn the radio down just a little,” Zelma said. “We need to be able to hear footsteps on the gravel if someone comes out early.”
Jeff did as she instructed. Neither of the two, especially Zelma, wanted to be caught in a comprising position.
Her parents, Frank and Geneva, were mainstays of the church. Frank was the choir director and a deacon. Geneva played piano and organ, and led the Women’s Circle meeting. Jeff’s mother sang in the choir.
Jeff leaned back against the front seat. He knew they were believable sitting up front, just talking and listening to the radio. The back seat was a different story. Zelma curled over and wedged herself between Jeff and the steering wheel. He kissed her lightly on the lips, and she closed her eyes, enjoying the tingle she felt.
I like your sweater,” he said, and ran his hand over the soft cotton at her shoulder and down to her bare arm.
She favored sweaters because they showcased her best physical asset. She also knew her limitations. That, in large part, accounted for these “practice sessions” with Jeff.
She had approached him earlier that summer. They had known each other for the greater part of their short lives, through church and, living four houses apart, as neighbors.
They’d sat outside on the front steps of the church, listening to the muted sounds of the choir from inside and watching the haphazard fireworks of lightning bugs against the settling darkness.
“You ever kiss a girl?” she’d asked.
He’d looked over at her with renewed interest.
“No, I mean really kissed one, on the lips and all that.”
“I said yes.”
“At church camp.” He uncoiled his long legs and leaned slowly forward, stretching with his fingers to grab the tops of his Keds. “Two years ago.”
“Yeah? Who was she?”
“Sandra Clarkson. She was from Cleveland. You wouldn’t know her.”
“Okay. Well, anyway, did you like doing it?”
“Of course I liked it. What do you mean?”
“Well, you were only, what, eleven years old?”
He looked at her with an impatient expression. “I was mature for my age.” Now he smiled. “Still am.”
He leaned back, placing his elbows on the rough concrete surface of the steps and turned his face up to the stars.
Zelma had hesitated. With the moment at hand, she felt less sure of her plan. What if he wasn’t interested? She’d concentrated on the flight pattern of a particular lightning bug, taken a breath and held it.
“Would you like to kiss me?”
She could tell from the sound of his voice that he was looking at her again. Relief flooded through her.
“Okay,” she’d begun, “here’s the deal.”
She’d explained her idea, how they could both benefit from practice. After all, one heard of all sorts of techniques that people used. It seemed something new came out almost every week, according to the magazines she saw at the drugstore. It wouldn’t be a big thing between them, of course. It was just practice, a way for them to enhance their skills, to better prepare themselves for the rigors of high school dating.
Jeff had agreed, and the pact was sealed.
The next Wednesday night, she’d gotten the car keys from her dad, who was more interested in his ailing alto section than in her need to catch up on the top-forty countdown.
And just like that, the experiment had started.
It had worked out well. They were both a little nervous at first, a little clumsy, but as the weeks went by they settled into a comfortable once-a-week routine.
Zelma had to admit she liked it. Jeff had taken to it well. He was sweet, not bad-looking, she thought, and eager to please. On occasion, she had to curb his youthful enthusiasm, but that wasn’t so awful and, if anything, bolstered her confidence.
Now, in the Bel Air, she slid her tongue wetly along the outline of Jeff’s lips. He returned the favor deftly.
“That’s called a French Smoothie,” she told him.
“Mmm. Very nice,” he said. “Where’d you hear about that?”
“One of the girls in my math class read about it in True Confessions.”
“Wait!” Jeff reached over and edged the radio’s volume up just a bit. Elvis’s velvety voice purred low and husky through the dashboard speaker. Don’t… don’t… that’s what you say … each time that I hold you this way…
“I love this song,” he whispered.
A huge Elvis fan, Jeff had started his collection with the early 78s and recently progressed to 45 rpm singles and four-cut albums. He’d even bought the Peace in the Valley gospel collection to show his mother that Elvis’s heart was in the right place.
Zelma, not used to being upstaged by The King or anyone else pulled Jeff’s face down to hers and gave him a long, slow kiss. She flicked her tongue teasingly between his teeth, and then probed for his tonsils. She felt him take a deep breath, and then his hand was sliding up along her torso, his thumb traveling along the outer rise of her left breast.
“Don’t!” she said.
“Don’t do that.”
“You know what.”
“You thought wrong,” she said, secretly pleased with the way she could fan his flames and then cool him off.
They were silent for a moment, listening as Elvis finished the song. Then Jeff bent and let his lips travel along Zelma’s neck. He brushed aside a strand of her hair and breathed into her ear.
The next thing she knew, his tongue was snaking around inside it.
“What are you doing now?” She sat up on the car seat.
He shrugged. “It’s supposed to make you hot.”
She stuck her finger in her ear, then pulled it out and stared at it myopically. “It made me wet.”
“I think that means it’s working,” he said, chuckling softly.
“My ear is full of spit, dummy! That’s not what I meant and you know it.”
“Okay, sorry. But that’s what we’re doing isn’t it? Trying out new stuff?”
“Next time just take it a little easier. I thought you were going for my brain.”
Their sessions continued throughout the summer and into late fall. Then, on a cool Sunday in November, a new family joined the church, and Zelma immediately fell hopelessly, shamelessly in love with their sixteen-year-old son, Reggie.
Tall and slender, with black wavy hair, he had a contagious smile and long, dark eyelashes Zelma herself would have killed for. That Sunday, he wore dark gray flannel trousers with a white shirt and a lighter gray tweed sport coat. As he made his way toward the exit after services, he wound a long, burgundy cashmere scarf about his neck.
Zelma squeezed through the throng waiting to congratulate the pastor on his sermon and darted for the parking lot. She positioned herself among the cars, then started back toward the church as though she were returning to retrieve some personal item left behind. She had calculated correctly and intercepted Reggie just as he stepped from the concrete walkway onto the gravel.
“Hello there,” she said, giving him her best smile. “Welcome to the church. I’m Zelma Robinson. ”
“Hello yourself,” he said, and offered his hand. “I’m Reggie.”
Zelma felt an electric current run up her arm as she grasped his long, slender fingers. She held on for dear life as the charge suddenly shot through her body to other, more sensitive parts. She barely managed to let go before something deliciously inappropriate happened to her in the church parking lot.
She took a deep breath and held it, laced her hands together behind her back, and struck a pose. In her peripheral vision she could see her breasts prominently displayed for Reggie’s consideration. God, she thought, I’m such a slut.
“I hope you’ll like it here,” she continued.
Reggie’s eyes never left her face. “I already do.” He took her hand again briefly, smiled, and said, “See you next Sunday.”
Zelma called after him. “I’m usually here for prayer meeting on Wednesday.”
He turned, waved, and got into the car where his parents were already waiting.
Jeff got the official bad news on a Wednesday night in December, though he’d seen it coming – the way Zelma practically threw herself at Reggie. He’d miss the make-out sessions, sure, but they’d been fun while they lasted. Hell, he’d probably experienced more than any other guy in the seventh grade, and he was doing pretty well with the girls in his class too.
In the last few months, he’d earned something of a reputation due to his prowess at “Seven Minutes in Heaven.” This more-adult version of “Spin the Bottle” had become a popular ice breaker at many of the eighth-grade parties.
He looked out into the darkness beyond the Chevy’s windshield. “It was a lot of fun,” he told her and meant it. “And I hope you and Reggie will be happy together.”
“Thanks for understanding.”
She started to get out of the car, but he stopped her.
“There’s just one thing.” He grinned at her, and stroked the back of her hand with a forefinger. “I never got to… you know.” He nodded toward her chest.
“They were never part of the deal,” she said.
“I know. It’s just that… well, I thought maybe someday…”
She nodded, leaned over and kissed him tenderly on the lips. “Don’t worry, Jeff. There are lots of girls out there. You’ll have plenty of other chances.” Then she left him alone in the dark.
Even with his newfound confidence, Jeff wasn’t so sure that was true. Kissing was great, but it wasn’t petting, and it was still light years away from what seemed the ultimate – and most likely unattainable – goal in his thirteen-year-old mind.
Things hadn’t gone quite the way Zelma had planned. Reggie, it turned out, was an accomplished soloist and practiced with the choir on Wednesday nights. So, instead of kissing – or whatever – in one car or the other, she ended up staring at Reggie from a church pew.
They sat together on Sunday mornings and evening services and held hands during the prayer meeting service before choir practice. So close and yet so far, she thought.
By the middle of January, her frustration was beginning to show. They’d managed to duck into the darkened church annex for a furtive, all too infrequent embrace before choir practice started. Reggie’s sweet, lingering kiss left Zelma’s heart racing. She literally ached for more.
“Can’t you get your father’s car?”
Reggie shook his head. “I haven’t had my license that long. He only lets me drive during the day.” He twisted a strand of Zelma’s hair around his finger, then let it go and watched as the ringlet spun free.
“That’d be okay. Maybe we could drive up to the lake or somewhere.” She slipped her arms around his waist and pulled him tight against her body. “I’m sure there are places we could go and park even during the day.”
He kissed her again lightly, then brought her hand up to his mouth and pressed his lips to the back of it. “Sure. I’ll see what I can work out.”
The church hayride was on a chilly Friday night in mid-February. Jeff tossed two wool army blankets up onto the truck’s hay bed and boosted Frieda up into the back, enjoying the view.
She hugged herself and shivered. “I’m freezing.”
Jeff covered her shoulders with a blanket and said, “C’mon, let’s find a good place.” He guided her to the front of the truck, and they hollowed out a shallow nest in the hay, away from the wind and right behind the cab.
Since that night in December when Zelma had told him about Reggie, Jeff had begged off the Wednesday night prayer meetings, using homework as his excuse. Now he surveyed the two dozen or so kids climbing onto the truck and picked out Zelma and Reggie. Zelma looked excited and Reggie, well, he looked perfect as usual in his car coat and matching muffler. Jeff was glad he’d asked Frieda to come.
Zelma saw Jeff and his date and wondered who the blonde girl was. Nobody from church she knew, so she must be from the junior high. She led Reggie by the hand and settled in the hay a few feet from the couple.
Jeff was wrapping himself and the girl in blankets. He had spooned up to her backside, and she was pulling his arm around her.
“Hi, Zelma. Hi, Reggie. This is Frieda.”
The girl smiled at them and snuggled closer to Jeff.
Zelma nodded to her and moved closer to Reggie.
As the truck pulled out and darkness fell, the couples huddled together under blankets, coats, hay, and – for those furthest from the chaperons who kept watch from the tailgate area– each other.
Sometime later, Zelma noted that Jeff and his little friend rarely came up for air.
She slid down in the hay and pulled Reggie along with her.
Jeff was in his bedroom studying when the phone rang. It was Zelma. She was crying.
“What is it?”
“He broke up with me,” she wailed into the telephone. “For no reason! He just broke up with me.”
He listened quietly while she sobbed into the receiver.
Finally, she took a deep, uneven breath. “I need to talk to someone. Can I come down there?”
Jeff was alone in the house. His father worked second shift at the enamel plant and his mother had gone on Thursday night “visitation” with ladies from the church.
“Sure. C’mon down.”
A few minutes later, he answered the door and she fell into his arms weeping. Her eyes were red and puffy, her face mottled.
She sobbed openly, burrowing into his chest, sucking in air in short, body-jerking hiccups and letting it out in a keening little cry. He held her tightly for a while then, when her spasms had subsided, led her to the couch and sat down beside her.
“Tell me what happened,” he said, stroking her hand.
She looked down at the floor, silent for almost a full minute, before she spoke.
“He called me on the telephone. The jerk! He called me and told me it wasn’t working for him, that we weren’t right for each other.”
Tears cascaded down her cheeks again, and she sniffed and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. Jeff watched quietly as she took another breath and turned to look at him.
“I guess our kissing practice didn’t work,” she said. “I wasn’t good enough or wasn’t pretty enough. I couldn’t love him the way he wanted.” She stared blankly at the wall in Jeff’s living room. “God, he was so beautiful. I would have let him do anything – anything he wanted.”
Jeff stood up and took her by the hand. “C’mon.”
He led her back to his bedroom, and she stood there while he combed through a rack of 45s on the bookcase. He made his selections and stacked them on the record player. There was a pop and a hiss, and then Elvis began singing low and slow.
He took her hand again and pulled her to him, and together they swayed to the music for what seemed a long time. I’m a fool, but I’ll love you dear… until the day I die… Now and then, there’s a fool such as I…
She was crying again and he could feel the wetness from her tears on his cheek and neck as they danced.
“Why couldn’t I have been prettier?” she whispered
Jeff didn’t know if she was asking him the question or herself. How did you tell a girl she wasn’t pretty enough to snag a snake charmer like Reggie? He was quiet, moving slowly to the music, as he gave it some thought. He pictured Reggie in his mind, the ever-so-stylish clothes, the perfect pitch of his solos on Sunday mornings, and in a minute the nucleus of an idea began to grow.
“There was no way you could ever have been pretty enough for Reggie.”
“What do you mean?” Even with her continuing to sniff in his ear, Jeff caught the edge in her voice. He moved his hand tenderly over her back, calming her.
“What I mean is that not you – or any other girl – is ever going to be pretty enough for Reggie.”
Zelma stopped moving to the music. She frowned and tilted her head to one side. “What?”
Jeff looked directly into her eyes. “Zelma, the guy’s a queer.”
She blinked rapidly a few times.
“He’s queer. He likes guys.”
She stood motionless, silent.
“Look at him,” Jeff said. “He’s too pretty. Look at his hands. Look at his eyelashes. He even has little feet.”
There was a clicking, mechanical noise as another 45 dropped into place and struggled for purchase on the spinning turntable.
She shook her head in disbelief. “But… we kissed. We… made out – sort of. He didn’t seem…” She searched for the right words. “I never thought…”
Jeff continued. “He was just trying a girl on for size – wanted to see what it was like.” He shrugged. “Heck, I guess it’s possible he doesn’t even know.”
Elvis chimed in then with the melancholy sounds of That’s When Your Heartache Begins, and Jeff nudged Zelma with his hip to get her moving again.
They circled slowly on a three-foot dance floor between the bookcase, the bed and a chest of drawers. Neither spoke for a while.
“You know,” she finally said, “he never did start the kissing stuff. It was always me, now that I think about it.”
Jeff let his lips trail almost imperceptibly over Zelma’s blotchy cheek. “And he seemed awfully concerned about his clothes and hair, and all that,” Jeff added. “Did you ever notice how he crossed his legs at his knees?”
She’d quit sniffling. “Yeah, that’s right! And…” She looked up at Jeff again. “And his feet are little!” And then she laughed.
Another record dropped.
Jeff tilted Zelma’s chin up with his hand and kissed her softly. Her mouth was warm and still slightly salty from her tears. He felt her hand travel up his back. Her fingers toyed with the bristly hair at the nape of his neck.
There was a familiar hiss as steel touched vinyl, and then, Don’t… don’t… that’s what they say…”
Zelma’s eyes were closed. Jeff touched his lips lightly to each eyelid and whispered in her ear. “So… does this mean that we can get back to our Wednesday nights again?”
She paused only for a moment. “Uh huh, if… if you’re sure you want to.”
“Oh, I want to. I never quit wanting to.”
He leaned down, took her lower lip between his teeth and bit down on it just a little. She sighed and moved against him. He slid his hands up from her waist, along her ribcage, and his thumbs caressed the swell of her breasts. She took a deep breath, let it out, and hugged him tighter.
He smiled to himself over her shoulder, and began to sing along softly to the record. “This you can believe… I will never leave you… Heaven knows I won’t… Baby, don’t say don’t.”
Reprint from moonShine review, Anne Hicks, Publisher. THRIFT Poetic Arts Press, volume 2, issue 2, 2006, http://www.thriftpoeticarts.com/moonshine.html